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Last updateTue, 04 Nov 2014 9pm

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Hamlin sweeps weekend at a ‘track too tough to tame’

The Lady in black, Darlington Raceway, may have added a few flourishes to her gown in recent years with a new infield tunnel, new pavement and grandstands, but last weekend the track that’s too tough to tame proved to be the same ornery track that the drivers love to hate.
The egg-shaped track in South Carolina’s sand hills is one of NASCAR’s oldest facilities. It’s also the sport’s first superspeedway. In spite of the track’s age, Darlington remains a challenge. Drivers who triumph there view their victories as career highlights.
“Only the best of the best in our sport go on to win at Darlington,” said Jeff Gordon, who leads all active drivers with seven Darlington victories. “When I came along, the history of the track and how it fit into the sport’s history was very well documented. The names Petty, Pearson, Yarborough, and Earnhardt, those were things that stuck out to me as, ‘Wow, if you can win here then you are really doing something.’”

Step out of line, drivers say, and The Lady will slap you with a Darlington stripe, a nasty black streak on the car’s right side, testament to a run-in with the wall. Turns three and four are tight and narrow, the top of the egg. Turns one and two, the bottom of the egg, though they are a bit more expansive, can deliver no less of a hit to those who over-drive the corner.
“Three and four have less grip,” said Jeff Burton, a two-time Darlington winner. One and two are banked more. The track’s unique configuration leads to constant conversation and compromise between drive and crew chiefs. Set up your car for one pair of turns, and be prepared to sacrifice performance at the track’s other end. There’s no room for error.
The groove is narrow, only a car width and a half wide and the track also is narrow. The track was repaved in 2008; this substituted one challenge for another. Prior to the track’s repaving, the rough sandy surface chewed up tires unmercifully, making tire management and the ability to set up the car around tire wear a crucial strategy. The new surface is smooth and fast. Think driving 170 mph on a two-lane road. Jamie McMurray set a new track record in qualifying for last Saturday night’s race.
“Track position is extremely important,” Gordon said. “You have to compromise as a driver and as a team with the setup because both ends of the race track are totally different, so you’re never going to have a perfect car or perfect set up. As a driver, you have to work around that and try to find the fastest way around. The place is fast now and it’s hard to pass.”
Not exactly a piece of cake. It’s a weekend of racing that would test drivers in the best of shape. Into this challenging weekend arrived Chesterfield, Virginia’s Denny Hamlin, just six weeks removed from ACL surgery on his left knee. You couldn’t blame Hamlin if he had logged a few laps, then bailed out of the car in favor of a relief drive at the first caution flag. Not our boy Denny; the young man is taking his position as senior driver for Joe Gibbs Racing quite seriously. Not only did he drive the full four-plus hour Showtime Southern 500 Saturday night, but he warmed up by driving in and winning Friday night’s Royal Purple 200 for the Nationwide Series cars.
Hamlin led the final 63 laps Friday night for his tenth career Nationwide Series win. Saturday night he led 104 of the 367 laps to capture his third Cup Series win of the season. Hamlin’s sweep of both Darlington races last weekend was the first in 17 years. Mark Martin was the last driver to sweep both races at the tough old track in 1993.
“You can’t put this in words,” Hamlin said in victory lane following his Southern 500 win. “Just an unbelievable night. Pit road did a phenomenal job getting me back on the track first, and that’s what led to this win. We went back and forth all night and fine tuned it to perfection at the end. Right there at the end, it was the best it’s been all night. That’s all you can ask for.”
You may reach Pete Barber
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